"The Truth and Nothing But the Truth?"

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on December 8, 2013
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

When Jacob gathers his sons to his deathbed, he opens with this exhortation: "Gather round, that I may tell you what will befall you in the aftertime of days" (49:1). At the conclusion of his speaking, the Torah tells us, "this is what their father spoke to them; he blessed them, according to what belonged to each as blessing, he blessed them" (49:28). Already, then, a discontinuity between the opening of Jacob's discourse and its conclusion should be apparent. What is forecast to be a forecast is, once concluded, summed up as something else entirely, a blessing. But when we turn to the actual content of the discourse that comes between these two verses, matters of description become more complicated still.

In fact, in order to highlight the problem, I have deliberately chosen to use Everett Fox's very literalist translation above, instead of that offered by Etz Hayim and several other commonly used translations. In the case of verse 1, the differences are not that significant, but here is how Etz Hayim translates verse 28: "and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him." Given that the root b,r,ch, which usually indicates blessing, is used three times in the verse, why translate it differently?

The editors of Etz Hayim remark in their commentary that the root "here is rendered 'bade farewell' because not all of the tribes received blessings" (p. 305). In fact, the word b,r,ch itself appears in the body of Jacob's speech only in reference to Joseph (verses 22-26) - six times! - though the messages given to several other brothers are also clearly positive wishes for success and prosperity. But what are we to make of Jacob's address to Reuven, in which he reminds his son of his sinful behavior with Bilhah, Jacob's concubine/wife, calling him "unstable as water" and telling him "you shall excel no more" (verse 4)? Similarly, Jacob speaks to Shimon and Levi together (saying they "are a pair"), castigating them for anger and violence and lawlessness (verses 5-7), an indictment widely understood a reference to their (sneak) attack on the city of Shechem, described in Gen. 34.

I would like to suggest that the questions that have been raised so far are all interconnected. They are (or at least include):

  • Why does Jacob say he intends to give his sons a vision of their future, but then seems to speak of something else?
  • Why is the speech described as a blessing at its end, when some elements of it - especially the addresses to Reuven, Shimon, and Levi - do not read as blessings, but quite the opposite, as condemnations?
  • Why does Jacob address Reuven, Shimon, and Levi in this fashion?

From as early as the composition of the classical midrashic collection, Genesis Rabbah, the rabbis were aware of the first of these questions, and sought to answer it. In 98:2 of that work, it is suggested that just as Jacob was intending to reveal secrets of the future to his sons, this prophetic information was hidden from him; a similar tradition appears in the Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 56a, and is cited by Rashi. Ibn Ezra, another medieval commentator, takes issue with this approach, however. He notes, as we too have, that these verses cannot be a blessing, for "where are the blessings of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi."  Rather, these verses are a form of prophecy, and only afterwards did Jacob bless all his sons. This then, also addresses the latter two questions, by suggesting that verse 28 itself is the moment at which Jacob blesses all his sons, together. This possibility appears, for example, in Genesis Rabbah 99:4 (as found in the Soncino translation):

AND HE BLESSED THEM is already written; why add, EVERYONE ACCORDING TO HIS BLESSING HE BLESSED THEM? But because he had blessed them, comparing Judah to a lion, Dan to a serpent, Naphtali to a hind, and Benjamin to a wolf; he subsequently included them altogether as one, declaring them all to be lions and serpents. The proof lies in this: Dan shall be a serpent (ib. 17); yet he [Moses] calls him a lion: Dan is a lion's whelp (Deut.XXXIII, 22).

More intriguing to me, however, is another possible answer, offered in Etz Hayim in the commentary to verse 4, in which Jacob says bluntly to Reuven that he has "brought disgrace" through his behavior:

What sort of blessing is this? Perhaps the greatest blessing is to have someone who cares about you point out your faults. (299)

In a similar vein, some commentators have noted that if one reads closely, one will see that Jacob criticizes Shimon and Levi's behavior, rather than Shimon and Levi themselves. By speaking bluntly and truthfully about their acts in the past, Jacob hopes to guide them on a different, more peaceful path in the future. Here again, truth-telling, though painful, can also be seen as a form of blessing.

So then - is truthfulness always the best path?

One possible answer to that question takes us back to the question of Jacob's prophecy that may not be a prophecy. According to the tradition that Jacob intended to reveal the future to his sons, but was ultimately denied the ability to do so, why might that be? Once again, Etz Hayim offers an intriguing source:

Perhaps, when Jacob looked into the future, he saw the quarreling and bloodshed that would befall his descendants, and the spirit of prophecy cannot abide when there is grief and sadness (Naftali of Ropshitz). (299)

Or, what I take from this source - there are times when it is not appropriate to reveal the truth. In this case, not only is Jacob not to reveal the truth to his sons, but the truth of the future, because of its difficult nature, is to be hidden from Jacob himself! The effect of even a small glimpse is so distressing as to cut off Jacob's ability to access any further vision. Perhaps sometimes we need to be protected from the full truth. Indeed, we know from elsewhere in the Torah that even God may resort to the "white lie" on occasion. Compare, for example, Gen. 18:12 and 13. When Sarah contemplates the possibility of bearing a child, she laughs at the thought "with my husband so old." When God reports her words to Abraham, however, Sarah's statement becomes "old as I am?" With a simple change from Sarah's true statement, God protects Abraham's feelings and marital accord between Abraham and Sarah.

Nor is this the only place in our parashah where we encounter this vexing problem of when it is appropriate to tell the truth and when a "white lie" might be in order. After Jacob dies, and his sons take his body back to Canaan for burial, once they are all back in Egypt, Gen. 50:15-17 relates:

When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!" So they sent this message to Joseph, "Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, 'Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly...'" And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.

Are the brothers telling the truth? It must be noted that if Jacob did indeed say this to his sons (other than Joseph), there is no other record of it elsewhere in the narrative. In fact, if Jacob had intended to deliver such a message, we might have expected him to deliver it directly to Joseph, but there is no record of any conversation of that sort either.

Which raises another question - did Jacob ever know the truth of how Joseph came to Egypt? Think again of Jacob's last discourse. If we presume that Jacob is telling the truth, as he knows it, about and to his sons, why mention other sins and failings while overlooking this one, one all participated in? Relatedly, a midrashic tradition asks, why did Joseph have to be told that his father was ill (48:1)? Did he not visit and keep in touch with his father? One possible answer is that no, he did not, precisely so that there would never be an occasion on which he was alone with his father, when his father might ask him uncomfortable questions about what happened to him. If this read of the story is correct (Jacob never found out the full truth), moreover, then we must presume that the brothers are not telling the truth to Joseph.

Should Joseph have told the truth to his father - presuming he did not? Are the brothers justified in lying to Joseph - if that's what they did? Are there ever easy or obvious answers to such questions? Perhaps we start by being as honest with ourselves about our motives as we can be, by being as honest as we can about the possible outcomes for ourselves and others from withholding the truth, telling part of the truth, or speaking the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So help us God.

Shabbat shalom.